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Gift Guide: Best Learning Toys for Quiet Time - LOVE this list for getting stuff done or one-on-one time with siblings!

Gift Guide 2014: Top Learning Toys for Quiet Time & Independent Play

I’m so excited to present you guys with the first of ten MPMK 2013 Christmas Gift Guides! I’ve been working like mad on them (we’re talking some serious man hours here) and, although I will admit that all the researching, photo-editing and linking can be more than a bit tedious, every year the process also gets me incredibly excited about what I want to get my own kids!

This first list is an entirely new category for this year and I’m honestly not sure why I didn’t think of it earlier… Quiet time has actually been on my mind quite a bit lately as I’ve been preparing for baby #3.  You see, one of the big things I’ve been learning about making sure all my kids feel loved once baby arrives is the importance of just 10 minutes a day of one-on-one time with each of them.

With three kids, though, that’s easier said than done.  Which is why I’m planning on stocking up my arsenal with some quiet time toys so awesome that my kiddos won’t even mind being shooed away to play with them when it’s not their special time with me.

As self-serving as this list is, I think you’re gonna love it too.  After all, what busy parent can’t use a stimulating educational toy their child can play with independently every once in a while?  Even if you only have one child, we all have to find ways to squeeze in cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry, bills, etc.  How great would it feel to set your child up with an educational activity they love during these times instead of repeatedly defaulting to the TV (no judgement, by the way, I’ve totally been there)?

Don’t forget – you can check out all 10 of our 2014 Gift Guides here!

Once again this year, I’m heading up each list with my favorites from all the picks – here, in no particular order, are my top 7 Learning Toys for Quiet Time & Independent Play (scroll down for full details on each):

  1. LeapFrog LeapPad2 Explorer Kids’ Learning Tablet $79.00 (3 – 9 years)
  2. Playskool 2-in-1 digital camera and projector $49.14 (3+ years)
  3. Highlights (6 – 12 years), Highlights High Five (2 – 6  years), and Highlights Hello (0 – 2  years) yearly magazine subscriptions $34.95
  4. Castle Logix $24.99 (3 – 8 years) and Camelot Jr. $24.99 (4 – 8 years)
  5. Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Books $4.99 (3 – 10 years)
  6. Leapfrog Leapreader Reading and Writing System $37.49 (4 – 8 years)
  7. Ravensburger Puzzles for various ages starting at $4.87 (1 – 99 years)

I should mention that one of our very favorite quiet time toys, blocks and building toys, are not included on this list.  That’s because there are so many blocks that I love they have their very own gift guide: Best Blocks & Construction Toys.

Read on for over 40 of my favorite learning toys for quiet time broken down into:

  • Reading & Writing Toys
  • Single Player Games
  • Sensory & Mess-Free Art Supplies
  • Innovative Tech Toys
  • Puzzles (Recommended by Age)
  • Magazine Subscriptions (Recommended by Age)

Special Note: In an effort to help you out as much as possible this year, I’ve included both prices and age recommendations for each item.  Please take the age ranges as just that – recommendations – you know you’re child best after all!  

Also, this time of year prices can fluctuate quite dramatically.  So if you see something a little outside of your price range, it might not be a bad idea to click over and check  it out anyway – you may get lucky and catch a sale.

Along those lines, I’m doing my best this year to keep our readers up-to-date on any sales I see on our gift guide items.  To be in the loop, be sure to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter.

Ready for the big list? Here we go…

The best picks for practicing reading and writing during quiet time - great ideas so mom can get stuff done or spend some one on one time with a sibling

Reading & Writing

Quiet time is ideal for young kids to practice their reading and writing skills and, with fun toys like these, they’ll be jumping at the chance to do so.

  • Leapfrog Leapreader Reading and Writing System $37.49 (4 – 8 years)  – The leapreader has been a leader amongst educational toys since it’s debut, and with good reason.  My son first got his when he turned 4 and not long after we decided to get one for our 3 year old too.  Both my kids will spend large chunks of time “reading” stories with the pen and my son has now started practicing his letters as well.  This is one of our top tier toys that never really makes it out of rotation.
  • Leapfrog Mr. Pencil Stylus – $11.24 (3 – 6 years) This kid friendly stylus works along with iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches with a special app that teaches writing letters, numbers and shapes through interactive games and activities. It would be great for long car rides or waiting rooms and is an Oppenheim platinum toy award winner.  Here’s what they have to say about it, “While we’re not big on most app-gear, this one makes sense. We also liked that the instruction for making letters was correct and included both upper and lower case letters. (Remember Joanne taught over 300 children how to write!) The app also includes instruction for numbers 1-20. “
  • Melissa & Doug Alphabet/Number Write-A-Mat Bundle $10.95 (4 – 8 years) I picked up this set of laminated mats with special erasable crayons for my son when his interest in writing was just starting to pick up, around age 4.  He really enjoys being able to follow the visual guidance on the mats to practice his numbers and letters without my help.  The coloring portion also extends his focus as he’ll often start-off writing, switch to coloring, and then go back… a great quiet time set.
  • Letter Construction Activity Set $27.56 (5 – 8 years) – Instead of using flashcards (blech), I like to sneak in letter learning wherever I can – on blocks, through stamps, foam letters in the bath, to paint with, etc.  I think these large-scale construction letters would be perfect for my little builders.  I’ve seen magnet toys using these same curve and line shapes but I think my kids would prefer the satisfaction of physically snapping the pieces together.
  • National Geographic First Big Books $10.76 (preschool – 3rd grade) and Smithsonian: The Animal Book: A Visual Encyclopedia of Life on Earth (3rd – 7th grade) $17.99 – I’m a big fan of leaving books all over the house for the kids to discover pretty much from birth.  My pre-readers will spend up to an hour perusing engaging picture books trying to glean information from them on their own or making up their own narratives.  I love these beautiful books for school-aged children as well as toddlers and preschoolers.

Top learning toys for quiet time: play alone games - love that my kids are building brainpower with these while I get stuff done or have one-on-one time with their sibling.

Single Player Games

We’re big on engaging activities that develop critical thinking skills, which is why I’m psyched to be adding this list of single player games to the gift guides this year.  I love the idea of having an array of logic games that challenge different skills for my kids to choose from during quiet time.  Plus, each of these games are just plain cool (and many just as enticing to adults as they are to the younger set).

  • Educational Insights Design and Drill Activity Center $23.99 (3 – 8 years) – This toy has been a big hit in our house since Santa brought it last year.  It’s a pattern building toy disguised as a construction toy that has a very cool and easy-to-use working drill.  Both my 3 year old and 5 year old will spend lots of quiet time occupied with this toy.
  • Castle Logix $24.99 (3 – 8 years) and Camelot Jr. $24.99 (4 – 8 years) – The entire line of single player puzzle games from SmartGames gets such stellar reviews that it was hard not to recommend all of them!  The bold colors of these two 3-D wooden castle puzzles especially caught my eye. Assemble the wooden blocks and towers to match the challenges included in the booklet. With simple challenges for inexperienced builders to complex puzzles that will challenge skilled architects, these puzzles serve to develop logical thinking skills and spatial reasoning abilities.
  • Color Code $19.99 (4+ years) – Another beautiful game that helps develop logic and spatial reasoning skills, the unique layering action of this game really stands out.  This set also contains increasingly difficult challenges, 100 in all.
  • eeBoo Design Tiles an Exploratory Activity for Creative Visual Play $28.99 (5 – 15 years) – eeBoo products have always been a favorite of mine (we especially love their color-based Go Fish game for younger kids). Their stunning graphics make them super appealing to kids and adults alike.  These design tiles are certainly no exception. They can be used to complete challenging puzzles or in an open-ended fashion to make all new creations. Critical thinking AND creativity –  that’s my kind of toy!
  • IQ Twist $9.99 (6+ years) – This compact, award-winning multi-level logic game contains 100 challenges suitable for all ages. It would be ideal for car rides and perfect to slip in someone’s stocking this year.
  • Perplexus Maze Game $18.00 (6 – 12 years) as well as Perplexus Rookie $17.70 (6 – 8 years) for younger kids and Perplexus Epic $23.81 (6-12 years) for experienced players – Perplexus looks like one of those games that you just can’t help but pick up and play when it’s sitting on a table in front of you and, judging by the massive amounts of positive reviews, it is.  This one is great for developing fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Plus I love that it’s battery-free and completely self-contained so there aren’t any pieces to get lost.
  • Laser Maze Logic Game $28.95 (8 – 15 years) – This one uses a real life laser. Your kids (and your husband) will think that in itself is pretty rad. Players will build sequential reasoning and planning skills while working on reflecting and splitting the laser beam using mirrors and targets on a puzzle grid to reach their goal.
  • Colorku Solid Wood Game Set $31.49 (8+ years) – This beautiful puzzle game uses colors instead of numbers for a new version of Sudoku – Colorku.  This would be a lovely addition to your coffee table, along with a great way to pass the time for anyone sitting nearby.

top learning toys for quiet time: mess-free art supplies

Sensory & Mess-Free Art

If you’ve spent any time at all here at Modern Parents, Messy Kids, then you know we’re a big fan of getting creative with the kids (even if you haven’t, you could probably figure that out from our name).  Although it doesn’t always work out, open-ended art time is something I strive to give my children as often as possible.  

Often a simple paper pad and some crayons, colored pencils, or watercolors will do just fine (these are always favorites of ours for stocking stuffers). But it’s also nice to have a well-stocked art cabinet, or drawer, for when standard coloring and painting gets a little old.  Also Adding in a few mess-free options makes it easier to squeeze in art time while you’re getting stuff done or spending one-on-one time with another child.

  • Aquadoodle Classic Mat $20.75 (2+ years) (and these accessories look super fun too). I’ll admit, I wasn’t super impressed with the idea of the aquadoodle at first – it seemed a little limited.  But then my friend nabbed one at a consignment store and my mind was completely changed at our next play date.  The kids really took to it and it was so easy to set them up and then we were able to (gasp) actually sit down on the couch and have a conversation together.  It makes sense – they love their magnadoodle and this is basically just a bigger version of that with better accessories.
  • Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Books $4.99 (3 – 10 years) – My parents gave the kids a couple of these reusable sticker books a few years ago for Christmas and they’ve been a consistent stand-by for us every since.  Each of the books contain a series of background pages and hundreds of various sticker clings that can be positioned over and over on them.  There tons of book themes to choose from too. They are surprisingly useful on long car rides (despite their large size) and we always grab them when heading to someone’s house who doesn’t have younger children and, therefore, is without toys to entertain younger children.
  • Classic Doodler with 2 Stampers $18.21(3 – 7 years) and Classic Etch-A-Sketch $14.99 (3-10) – These quintessential mess-free art toys do double duty, serving as both the perfect quiet time toy and the ultimate travel toy.  Get both and keep them on-hand at all times, you won’t be sorry.
  • Crayola Light Designer $38.95 (6 – 15 years) – This item was a big hit last year, and you can tell why with one glance.  It’s basically a fancier and more flexible version of the light bright you loved as a kid – with the added bonus of no small pieces to loose and constantly be stepping on. It also allows your kids to turn their drawings into moving animations and there’s a game function too.
  • Crayola Color Wonder Paper $4.97, which works with Color Wonder Markers $7.95, Color Wonder Paints $13.95 and Color Wonder Finger Paints $7.95. The crayola color wonder series is another way to set the kids up for art time and be able to comfortably walk away for 10 minutes without worrying about the state of your furniture when you return.  Although a little spendy to keep a never ending supply on-hand, these can be a life-saver and are great presents to ask for from grandparents and other relatives. We have the travel tote with mini markers and the kids love using them during car trips.
  • Play-doh Plus Set $4.97 along with this Play-Doh Clay Center with Storage Case $29.99 – Although not completely mess-free, Play-doh really is the ultimate quiet time art toy.  It’s unbelievably engaging to kids of all ages and, as long as you prep your space well with a table cloth or large placemats, allows for quick and easy cleanup.  Of course you can always make your own, but I like to also have a few tubs of the pre-made stuff on hand for when we don’t have time.  Plus, I’m intrigued to try this new special recipe.  I also highly recommend the clay center with storage case.  It’ll give your kids tons of tools to keep them occupied and you a handy place to store them all when they’re done.

top learning toys for quiet time: innovative-tech selections - I'm so excited about that digital kid camera that projects the image onto the wall!

Tech Toys for Innovators & Creators

I’m not terribly big on screen time for kids so I don’t typically recommend a lot of tech toys.  My general stance is that I want my kids exploring outside or using their hands to create things at this stage.  Nevertheless, I don’t intend to keep them in a tech-free bubble either.  My husband and I are slowly integrating technology into their lives on our own terms.

One of the things that we look for when considering tech toys, are those that can be used for learning in open-ended ways and to create with or, even better, that can be used for more than just straight forward screen time.  Here are four such toys that have caught my eye this season.

  • LeapFrog LeapPad Series: Leappad2 $79.00 (3 – 9 years)/Leappad2 Power $97.51 (same as Leappad2 with rechargeable batteries and an AC power adapter) or the Leappad Ultra $149.00 (4 – 9 years) and protective case – If you’re looking for an educational introductory tablet for your kids, the consensus is a LeapPad is what you want. The multitude of eBooks and educational apps available foster reading, art, music, language and culture, science, geography, mathematics, and health but what I really love about it are the possibilities for creating.  It comes equipped with two front and back cameras and video recorders allowing children to create masterpieces in the Art Studio, edit pictures they’ve taken in the Photo Studio and create, direct and narrate their own animated movies in the new included Cartoon Director app .
  • Playskool 2-in-1 Digital Camera and Projector $49.14 (3 – 7 years) – Photography is an amazing art to introduce to your children at a young age.  Encouraging them to get behind the lens gives them a different perspective on their surroundings and gives them some control of their world. Plus, if you tend to take a lot of photos of your kids (ahem), getting them into photography will make them more likely to put up with your shutter bug tendencies. We’ve had a few digital kid cameras in the past and, while the kids have always been excited about them, they all produced poor picture quality, were difficult for the kids to operate on their own, and broke easily.  So I’ve been on the lookout for a better designed kid camera for quite a while and I think this Oppenheimer award winning version is it!  My favorite feature has to be that with the flip of a switch this camera will instantly project captured images up onto a wall (cool!).  Big buttons and screen, along with durability, good photo quality, storage of 1000 photos at a time and instant special effects means this one is going under our tree this year (shh! – don’t tell).
  • LEGO Life of George $19.57 (8 – 15 years) – I really love the concept of this TOTY eTech toy of the year because it’s the world’s first interactive game combining LEGO bricks with a mobile device to bridge the physical and virtual building play worlds. Download the app to your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Android device and build the models as fast as you can. Place them on the play mat and use the app to scan and score your model. Reviews are a little mixed on the execution on this one but I think the concept is amazing!
  • Stopmotion Explosion: Complete Stop Motion Animation Kit with Camera $79.00 (8 – 15 years)- Stop motion is such a cool way to get kids working with technology without being stuck behind a screen and this all-inclusive kit is the prefect way to get them started. This is a great way to foster open-ended creativity, especially in older kids who can work with this kit all on their own.


Top learning toys for quiet time: puzzles recommended by age - love this entire gift guide!


Puzzles are HUGE at our house.  In fact, if I could only have 3 things for the kids to play with all day long it would be a pile of books, a set of blocks, and a stack of puzzles.  Here are examples of  our favorites types of puzzle for each age range to get you started on your own collection.

The best picks for practicing reading and writing during quiet time - great ideas so mom can get stuff done or spend some one on one time with a sibling. My toddler and preschooler absolutely love getting their magazines in the mail and they're great for both bonding time and quiet time.


My dad started sending my kids Highlights Hi-Five Magazine a couple of years ago and it was one of the best presents they ever received.  They love regularly getting their own mail almost as much as they love reading each issue.  Since then, we’ve discovered a whole range of engaging and educational magazine subscriptions for kids. (We currently receive Highlights Hi-Five, Chirp, and Zoobooks.)

The cool thing is that many of them have various series for different ages so the kids can start young and progress on to the next series as they get older (and with most, you can switch the subscription at any time). Since I have pre-readers, we read a lot of these stories together but even now these magazines can still be good for quiet time as many of them contain puzzles and activities that the kids can do alone.  I’m sure these subscriptions will be worth their weight in gold once the kids are reading on their own too.

  • Highlights (6 – 12 years), Highlights High Five (2 – 6  years), and Highlights Hello (0 – 2  years) $34.95/12 months. – Highlights is a total classic in quality children’s literature.  From science projects and foreign languages, to jokes and puzzles, the content in these magazines will capture your child’s attention and regular features every month give kids a sense of familiarity that makes them comfortable even when faced with material that challenges their growing brains
  • Owl (9 – 13 years), Chickadee (6 – 9 years), and Chirp (3 – 6 years) $34.95/12 months – A long-standing Canadian series of children’s magazines based on a different editorial theme each month.  The issues are packed with interactive stories, puzzles, animal features, and science experiments to educate and entertain readers as well as topics ranging from sports and the environment, to pop culture and peer relationships for older readers.
  • Cricket (9-14 years), Spider (6 – 9 years), Ladybug (3 – 6 years) and Babybug (6 mos – 3 years) $28.95/12 months – The introductory series, Babybug, is a unique board-book style magazine full of the highest-quality content available from the world’s best children’s writers and artists. The series progresses to enchanting stories, poems, and activities with Ladybug and Spider and fiction and classic literature as well as nonfiction stories on culture, history, science, and the arts for preteens in Cricket.
  • Ask (7 – 1o years) $28.95/12 months – An innovative and award-winning children’s publication that focuses on the arts and sciences, it includes topics and themes that children have a natural curiosity about, such as the human body, Earth, animals, and nature.
  • Zoobooks (6 – 12 years) $29.95 – Each issue is themed around a specific animal or group of animals, discussing habits and habitat in depth. The most unique features of each animal are broken down and explained at a child’s level. For species that are extinct or becoming extinct, children are encouraged to take action to ensure those animals’ futures. The last four pages of each edition offer a pull-out activity booklet filled with games, puzzles, and coloring pages.
  • National Geographic Little Kids (3 – 6 years) $15.00/12 months – includes articles on animals from around the world, science, and cultural topics discussing life in other countries. The large text and engaging full-color photographs in National Geographic Little Kids magazine help beginning readers explore the content on their own, and exciting activities throughout the magazine keep your child’s interest so learning becomes fun. Issues include age-appropriate mazes, matching games, counting exercises, and rhymes. Each issue also includes things parents and kids can do together, such as crafts, science activities, and recipes to try at home.

Side Note: One thing we appreciate about all of these subscriptions is the lack of ads pushing various toys to the kids.  While we enjoy National Geographic Little Kids for that reason, sadly, the same cannot be said for the next step up in the series, National Geographic Kids.

*Post contains affiliate links.

If you like these recommendations, I encourage you to pin or bookmark them for later when you’re ready to start shopping.  I would also love it if you forwarded the list on to your parenting friends or shared it on facebook – trust me, your friends will thank you for the help and you get to be the cool mom (or dad) with all the best resources. It’s a win-win.

Also, don’t forget to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for even more recommendations and alerts when we spot our gift guide items on sale!

P.S. See all 10 of our 2014 Gift Guides here.




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